Ireland’s Earliest Written Words

Ogham writing is showing up on more and more Irish gifts, but what is it?  The ancient slash marks carved on stone were the earliest form of writing in Celtic Ireland.  This form of writing flourished in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, but is believed to be even older than that.  Some experts believe that ogham was influenced by the Roman Empire, although it developed as a Gaelic writing system.  Ogham inscriptions have been found in other Gaelic-speaking regions.  Outside of Ireland, it has mostly been found in Wales but examples have also been found in Cornwall, the Isle of Mann and Scotland.

While scholars have room for debate about how the language developed and how much influence the Romans had on it, it is a Gaelic alphabet.  Most of the letters are named for trees and shrubs, reflecting the pre-Christian Gaelic belief system.  The letter C, for example, is coll, the Irish for hazel.

The ogham alphabet includes 25 different letters.  It is written as a series of slash marks with a center line.  When ogham was carved on standing stones, rectangular stones were used and the corner was used as the centre line.  The length, direction and position of the slashes varies to represent different sounds. Ogham is read from bottom top, beginning at the lower left.

How Was Ogham Used?

Ogham was the name of an ancient Irish god dubbed the god of eloquence.  (And of course pre-Christian Ireland had a god of eloquence.  It has always been a prized trait on this island!)  While the gift of the gab is one of the most celebrated Irish gifts, these ogham stones are not ancient novels.  They don’t tell stories, at least not in a way we can really make sense of today.  Most of the surviving Ogham stones are names.  Perhaps they marked different clan’s territories or sites where the person named committed some heroic deed.

Today, we know of only 400 stone monuments inscribed with ogham in Ireland and Great Britain.  But standing stones were not the only place ogham letters were used.  Some ancient legends mention it being used on wood and metal.  Sometimes it was simply a name tag to announced who owned an item.  Ogham was used to keep various records such as family histories and legal transactions.  But some ogham writing is more mysterious and cryptic.  Many believe it was also used to perform magic.

Few of us feel talented enough to try our hand at the stunning illuminated letter featured in the Book of Kells.  The Celtic script with its rounded Ts and Hs is challenging.  But while we might find those ancient ogham inscriptions difficult to decipher, at least writing the script isn’t too hard.  Our ancestors used ogham to write words from other languages, so there is no reason not to translate your name into this ancient Gaelic writing.  You can also find a wide range of beautiful Irish gifts that feature ogham writing, particularly jewelry.